California English Journal
Teaching Stories: The Importance of Shared Inquiry in Beginning
Throughout the year, these teachers made observations about their individual experiences that led them to tacit understandings about themselves as teachers. Their shared inquiry helped them bring what they were learning about teaching to a conscious level. Vinz, p. 238
And if I know anything, I know how to survive, how to remake the world in story. Allison, p. 4
Listen to this conversation, overheard one night in an Irish pub.
"People at my school keep asking me, How late do you stay after school? I say, Oh, usually until three-thirty or four. They ask, And then do you go home and make lesson plans and mark papers? Yeah, usually, but sometimes I might go out. Well, if you keep up at that pace, you're gonna burn out. At the end of this year you're gonna quit. You're never gonna get any better, and you're just gonna get worse and you're gonna burn out."
Kirsten, a first-year teacher, is reenacting for her neighbors a conversation she has had recently at her school.
"Is that what they say to you?" Coming from Dave, who taught several years in public schools, it is a rhetorical question. He is grimly unsurprised.
"Who is this who's telling you this? Who is this person?" Andrew, who is teaching high school for the first time this year, is still a little bit surprised.
"I've had four different teachers . . ." Kirsten becomes a mimic: "If you don't get a mentor, if you don't start going to the teacher's cafeteria, if you don't start associating with other teachers who can help you, you're gonna burn out.
Kirsten rotates her beer stein on the table. "I mean, yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching! Yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking about my students. But I didn't sign up to be a teacher so I could be like, Oops, two-forty, gotta go. I can only have forty-five minutes, that's my prep, forty-five minutes of grading papers, so everything I do better fit into that period of time. I never thought that's what it was gonna be."
"It's just how threatened people feel," offers Cammie.
"These are some common themes in the slight literature on first-year teachers, the themes of, a) isolation, and b)--and this isn't just new teachers--it's the threat of new ideas, and a kind of vicious response to it from more burned-out teachers, or traditional teachers who are more experienced." Dave is sounding a little like a university professor. As it happens, he is a professor, in an English Education program at a local university, where the others have been methods students, two of them with Dave as their teacher. "They want to disabuse you of all these liberal notions, that you can individualize instruction, that you can do whole language, that you can do process approaches to instruction, that you can create a workshop in the classroom, all that stuff. They think they've seen that before."
Isolation is obviously a problem for new teachers. The other teachers at Kirsten's school correctly suggest that to isolate yourself is to hasten burn-out. However, as Kirsten has made clear, if she were to take her colleagues' advice and simply conform to the status quo at her school, abandon the approach to teaching that she finds personally compelling, this would also be a route to burn-out. What is the path running between these two unacceptable alternatives? Is it a prefabricated path? Or is it a path made "by walking?" (Horton and Freire, 1990).
Some school systems have taken steps to find such a path, pairing new teachers with mentors who dispense advice on everything from lesson-planning, to dealing with behavior problems, to where to buy an inexpensive lunch. And, more often than not, veteran teachers, thinking of the plagues they had to endure at the outset of their careers, wish they could vaccinate new teachers with some distillation of their experience. They give unsolicited advice.
The meeting at the bar, which took place in January of 1999, was no accident. It was engineered by Dave and Tony as an encore to an experiment in collaborative planning they carried out the previous spring when they each taught sections of English Methods. Their object was to bring together a group of first-year teachers to meet on a regular basis during their first year of teaching. They invited four students, Andrew, Cammie, Kirsten and Nancy, to participate. These four did not teach at the same schools, and they did not teach the same grade levels, but all four had demonstrated an interest in how democratic practices find a place (or don't) in the secondary English classroom. They also chose them, as Dave explained, by asking themselves, "Who would we most like to spend a year with, hanging out in a bar, drinking beer and talking about teaching?" Ultimately, they wanted to create a community of first year teachers who would support each other in whatever ways those teachers thought necessary. So it was less about advice for new teachers these two veteran teachers had to share than a series of occasions for mutual exploration of whatever teaching issues came up for them in the process of learning to teach, occasions that were more about creating supportive relationships-even friendship--than providing technical expertise.
At the first meeting in late June of 1998, after a semester of student teaching, in (of course) an Irish pub, the following exchange took place:
Dave: Well, it's an interesting move, the creation of supportive communities. You four might not have chosen to be in the same space at the same time. You might have chosen three other people you were absolutely comfortable crying in front of, and what we've done is something different. We just take four of the people in our classrooms with whom we felt most comfortable and put them together. You may not feel initially comfortable, but I'm still hopeful as a teacher that it can still happen, still work, as a supportive community.
Cammie: Part of me feels too far removed from conversations like this, in that, I already feel like I need it and I couldn't imagine a year without it. I think, if you don't set aside time like this it is really hard, in the flurry of things, to make the time for it. At the same time, there's a part of me. . . I kind of want to run away from it all and just close the door and be a teacher for a year by myself. It's not that when I'm in the classroom now I'm not conscious of what I'm doing and the mistakes I make. So part of me feels like, I don't need somebody else helping me figure out the mistakes I'm making, or how to fix them, because I know.
Nancy: Right, as a new teacher you're very conscious. You're hyper-conscious.
Cammie: And I feel like all of us here are that way. Nonetheless, most of the time I feel like this is something I need, but, sometimes I'm all too frustrated and I'm like, Uhn! Yeah, just let me go to sleep or something, you know what I mean?
Kirsten: I feel very lucky this year, and I feel lucky in my life, that two of my closest friends and my mother are all teachers. So I could never seem to avoid talking about teaching. On some days it's good, and some days it's bad, but I really do feel like it is needed. I mean, I look forward to these meetings just to feel the network and support that is out of your school, so you don't just fall into conversations that are only about kids and parents. Those kinds of conversations don't necessarily work out in the same way as this.
Cammie: Right, right.
Nancy: About the issue of not necessarily choosing this group, it's a really interesting concept because, [to Dave] you kind of touched on it, we ask our kids to do that all the time. We put them in groups and we say, work together. But we as teachers are outside the group, and we can never experience that. But to continue that kind of experience is valuable, because we are constantly asking our students to do that, constantly asking them to produce in groups when they may or may not choose these people to socialize with. So it's kind of interesting to come together in a quasi-social setting, and try to do some democratic process.
Like campers around a bonfire late at night, we kept each other 'awake,' or conscious, by telling stories. As a distillation of experience, the story has this advantage over the piece of unsolicited advice: the storyteller distills his or her own experience, for his or her own use. Curiously, while listening to the story, the others sometimes find that an altered perspective on their own experience is a sweet byproduct of the distillation process.
Advice often has the disadvantage of conferring to the recipient the burden of either taking or ignoring it. In light of how strenuous the work of teaching is to begin with, we did not give each other more work to do. Instead, we unburdened ourselves.
At a meeting in September, after the first week of school, Kirsten gets the group rolling. "I had the worst first day," she says. "People told me, It's seventh grade! It'll be all right. They re all going to be afraid of you. Yeah, right. They're not afraid of anything at all. It was terrible. I understand what I did wrong the first day, which I corrected the second day, which went much better. The third day I did a mix between the stuff I did right and the stuff I did wrong, which made it a mixed day."
"Can you talk about that?" Dave asks. "What do you mean, what you did 'wrong'?"
"Well, the first day, you go in there all excited, and you go in there totally emotionally involved already with these kids you don't even know, or at least I was. So I was all, We're going to have a great time! And they were just like, Yeah? Well, f*** you. So then I got upset, and flustered, and tried to do this This is disappointing approach, and they're like, Yeah, right, this IS disappointing, and I'm getting mad, and they're really like, Whoo-oo, we got her pissed off on the very first day!
So, on the second day, I didn't raise my voice, very calm, very level-headed, like nothing fazed me, and whew they were good. Then today, the intercom system--I want to kill it!--flustered me all the time, and there was a fire drill in the middle of a two period class that they didn't tell me about, so my plans got cut in half. I couldn't do group work, because I didn't have time, and then you can't do silent reading if you have a fire drill, so I was like, We're going to have a," and here she paused to inject a note of dramatic emphasis, "Quiz on your Common Knowledge, as in, who's the President of the United States? I was like, I need to know where you are so I can take you where you want to go, and they didn't know what was going on. So I'm like, Who's the first president of the U.S. and everyone yells, How do you spell 'George'?"
Each of the new teachers stories that night, mixing humor and horror, zero in on the sites of their greatest anxiety. Even at this time, the consciousness (as Nancy named it) that Cammie rightly attributed to everyone in the group is evident. Kirsten can't help but narrate her first three days in an evaluative way, identifying certain errors and smart moves she had made as a teacher. As a distillation of experience, the story has this advantage to the piece of unsolicited advice: storytellers distill their own experience, for their own use. And one could also argue that listeners take from others' experience to add to their own.
Two months into the school year, Cammie filled in the group on her latest teaching struggle, trying to come to terms with her feelings and actions regarding Jaime, a student already pegged by the school's administrator as so "at-risk" that he should be transferred out of the school. While she resisted this characterization of Jaime as somewhat incorrect and limiting, she admitted that she was starting to lean toward her administrator's plan to have him removed. Cammie explains how, after a day of false fire alarms and incredibly disruptive behavior by Jaime, her administrator pulls him out of class where Cammie had just settled him into silent reading, after numerous outbursts (both his and hers) and starts screaming at him. "She just pulls him into the hall and starts yelling all of these truly reprehensible things at him and saying 'You're the one pulling the fire alarm, you're the one pulling the fire alarm!' He starts crying, freaks out, starts screaming, throwing things. This is in the hall. But then, I go back in my classroom. I can t even think. He's supposed to be in my class at the time, but. . . I kind of just turned around and went into my class. And shut the door. No, I left the door open, and he was just out there freaking out."
The others in the group listen carefully, mostly just allowing Cammie space to tell her story, to construct her story, sorting out and telling what has meaning to her, what is truth to her. And in the process, she critically reflects on her actions, in the presence of others raising questions about what she does and what she believes. In the end, she says, "Yeah, and I'm also--I don't know if I'm--I think I'm sometimes just really good at trying to rationalize and justify my feelings to myself in my head. Because I definitely feel that I'm at my wits' end, and I can't deal with him. I teach when he's in class and nothing's working, everything I'm trying is just getting worse and worse. Anything I tried with him that was at all effective before? Today, it's one hundred percent ineffective. And so, now I'm kind of able to rationalize my feelings of wanting him to not be in the school by saying, 'You know what? This isn't the right place for Jaime because he isn't getting what he needs here, and he's not functioning here. Which, in part, I totally believe. And then, in part, I'm just like, 'Well, damn, why is that?'"
Cammie s story, like Kirsten's, highlights some of the exasperation and even sometimes, desperation, that new teachers feel in many teaching situations, with one important difference. Kirsten's story has a confessional, self-deprecating quality to it, and is definitely of the "first day" story genre, certainly not suggestive of something one might want to do in one's own classroom. Cammie's story has a different quality to it, one told by a teacher just a little more experienced at this point, one that emerges into a process of collective meaning-making. In asking herself, "why is that?" Cammie poses the question to the group, allowing us to either help her answer the question for herself or use it as a lens through which to see students in our own classrooms.
So what was the usefulness of a group of teachers meeting without a set agenda, meeting weekly for a year to discuss teaching, telling stories for sometimes hours on end?
As we see it now, as we begin to take a closer look at what the process meant for us, what sharing these stories and countless others did for us, in addition to self-construction, is allow us to feel empathy for one another. The process of sharing teaching stories with each other also allowed us to imagine ourselves in each other's classrooms, playing out how we might have responded, thinking through moves we might have made.
Reflecting back on the process, recently, in an email message to the group, Andrew said, "I feel as though the curious hybrid identity of the meetings made it easier for us to attend them--I don't know about you, but for me it was this: When I tried to stop myself from going because I was burning out on teaching, I would say, 'but this isn't work, it's fun, it's pleasant to hang out with these people' and when I tried to stop myself from going because I felt like I had been slacking off on my teaching, I would say, 'this isn't just fun--it's helping my teaching by giving me other perspectives and an opportunity to think some things through by talking about them,' so it was like a no-lose situation."
It's important to note that one member of our group, Nancy, stopped meeting with us mid-year, so we would be misrepresenting our experience to suggest that this process of shared inquiry through story-telling would be right for everybody. However, we still contend that a community of listeners can provide a tremendous amount of support and help for teachers. It surely was for most of us, much of the time.
We suggest that new teachers create spaces for themselves to share stories with each other, and in this process learn-through the articulation and shaping of experience into a story-through our acts of speaking and through the process of response that takes place in any social setting where stories are shared. In such a setting the process of critical reflection through an exchange of stories is both personal and social, constructive, yet still tentative, exploratory. As novelist Tim O'Brien says, "What stories can do, I guess, is to make things present" (p. 204). And being present, the things of our classrooms can be explored, analyzed, reimagined.
In an age when teachers get out of the profession on average within 3-5 years of their beginning, perhaps developing such a storytelling community might extend some teachers' careers. At least some good talk will take place, talk that can help us survive, talk that can help us "remake the world" (Allison, p. 4).
About the Authors
I'm Still Standing:
Reflections of A First Year English Teacher
At the end of my first semester teaching, I asked my students to reflect back on the semester. I asked them what their low point was, as well as their high, both personally and academically. I asked them to choose their best piece of writing, and to tell me which books, stories, poems and projects they most enjoyed and most hated. Now, I'm thinking about how to answer those questions for myself. What were my lowest moments as a first year teacher? What were my highest highs, my best lessons, what did I learn? Did I do my job? Am I a good teacher? Can I do this, and do I still want to?
Last summer I sought a job with the LA Unified School District as an emergency credentialed English teacher. I was two classes shy of my teaching credential; I had a wee amount of classroom experience from teaching in the after school DARE Plus Program, and my head was stuffed so full of theory and methods and so many untested lessons with my professors' "A"s written on them that I felt confident and cocksure.
In a word, I was ready, or so I thought.
I interviewed at several schools and was offered jobs at all of them. Schools in the LA Unified school district were desperate for teachers. Some principals barely interviewed me-they looked at me, asked me one or two questions and offered the job. I chose the school where I was grilled by a tough and spirited panel, including a principal, a high energy department chairperson whose articles I had read and admired, a feisty parent, the union representative and a student. Some of their questions were difficult; to me that was a sign that the school was healthy and truly cared about the students. An added lure was that I was promised 9th and 11th grade classes (with a 20-1 ratio) and my own classroom.
I strode into the school early in September fresh-faced, determined, armed with neatly typed lesson plans and a purchased-on-Visa small, professional wardrobe. I had collaborated with a good friend, also a first year teacher, and we had planned a month-long unit. Young and full of indignation about social and racial injustice, and truly in love with literature, we were excited about the pieces we had planned to use to teach literary devices. We were high on the thought of the essays and creative pieces our students would turn out. I foresaw my classroom as a rich community full of talented learners.
At the end of the first semester, in early February, I limped out of the school on a minimum day to the daunting task of grading more than one hundred final essays and bubbling in my grades. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, had my fourth cold of the year, and bags under my eyes. What had happened? I didn't have a personal tragedy or a debilitating illness-- I had survived an ordinary first semester in the life of an ordinary first year public school English teacher.
What had happened was that the reality of the job, the school and the system hit me hard and hit me fast. I received my schedule with a shock-I was actually going to be teaching in three different classrooms, and teaching all 9th grade. I was given three periods of Sheltered English 9 and two periods of regular English 9, therefore the time and effort I had spent working on an 11th grade curriculum was wasted. There were not enough textbooks to go around, and certainly not enough from students to take home. Fine, I thought, I can make copies. I quickly discovered that we have only one copy machine, which spent a large portion of the semester broken. Not to be daunted, I began spending a great deal of time and money at an OfficeMax, making copies of stories and poems for my students. When I politely inquired whether someone could help me make phone calls to Spanish speaking parents (most of my students' parents are monolingual Spanish speakers) I was told to ask the Spanish teachers for help, as if they aren't overworked and teaching overcrowded classes themselves. Not to be daunted, I hired a translator, ordered three-way calling for my phone at home, and also begged help from my bilingual friends.
The teacher I share my "home" classroom with and I wanted to make the classroom comfortable and cheerful. We walked into an ugly room with broken blinds, peeling chalkboards, burned out lights, graffiti and broken and mismatched desks and chairs. Not to be daunted, we scrubbed, swept, begged and borrowed, and spent hundreds of dollars before we'd received our first paychecks on paper, pens, posters, colored paper to make bulletin boards, books for students to read, markers, highlighters, colored pencils, and colorful file folders for portfolios. We spent hours and hours cleaning and preparing the room. There we were-two ebullient, passionate young teachers who refused to be daunted. But all of that working around daunting situations can tire you, before you even begin to address the students.
As for the students-- my best moments have been with the students, and my lowest moments have been with them. I'm still feeling my way through discipline problems and I am sure I have handled things the wrong way on hundreds of small occasions. I'm learning. I've had a favorite students say, "Man, that was boring"-she might as well have kicked me in the stomach. I've had lessons absolutely flop, but I've also had moments in the classroom so powerful they gave me chills. I've been so high on teaching and the absolute love and loyalty of my students that I've felt invincible.
The first moment I felt the magical high of being an English teacher was early in the semester. It was late September, and we were working on an identity unit which included short stories and poetry. I photocopied a little portion of Yxta Maya Murray's novel about women gangbangers in Echo Park, Locas. I didn't ask anyone's permission and prayed I wouldn't be reprimanded later. The excerpt I chose was a few pages in length, in which Lucia, the protagonist, describes the jumping-in of her girls. They beat each other up on a clear Los Angeles night and afterward cuddle together feeling like sisters. Before we read the piece, I warned that there was a bit of profanity, but that it was necessary for the authenticity of Lucia's voice. I remember that the classroom was hot that day. The air conditioner was humming uselessly and we could hear the PE students chanting halfheartedly through their calisthenics; "ONE- TWO- THREE!" Most of my students were sticky and slumped, the girls in their heavy eye makeup and skimpy spaghetti strap tops, and the boys with sleepily lidded eyes, barely moving, barely breathing. I chose a few students to share the reading with me. And as one student, an excellent reader, began reading, with her heavy accent and gravelly voice, I began to really hear Lucia, the nineteen year old Chicana gangbanger from Echo Park.
She read, and the atmosphere in the room began to change. People who had been halfheartedly pretending to read the piece scanned it quickly to try and find where we were, and others sat straight up, eyes wide. What is this? I wondered. It was the first time that my whole class was held at rapt attention by a piece of literature, and it was pure magic. After the last reader took her turn and finished reading, there was silence, and then students began asking, "What is that book? Can I borrow it? I want to read that book!" After the reading, we had a discussion and worked on finding the author's similes, and every student did it willingly and well. I ordered ten copies of the book when I went home, and three students have since told me it's the first book they have ever read in entirety.
Since that day, I've had that happen several times, but certainly not every day, and not enough. Sometimes the literature itself is so engaging, so real, and so gritty that all I need is it and someone to read it. I think all of us are English teachers because we're in love with literature and with the pleasure of saying, "Read this!" and having someone reply, "It was amazing!" There's such pride, pleasure, and power in being the teacher who was the first to show a student his favorite poem, or who heard her first line of Shakespeare cross her lips. I've looked around the room at a class of fourteen year olds happily engaged in peer editing and rewriting, their noise level at just the right productive hum, and thought, "I absolutely love this job". I have had a student walk out of class, slam the door and say, "I hate this dumb-ass class," and I have gone home and wept with frustration, helplessness, and anger.
I think every day whether I want to continue to do this, and my answer can fluctuate from "Absolutely" to "Absolutely not" from one day to the next. This is a difficult job. As a first year teacher, I'm planning and grading papers for three hours a night, and all weekend. I'm spending hundreds of dollars from my small salary on basic things such as copy paper, pens and pencils, books and Kleenex. My friends, who are my age and with less education than me, are earning twice my salary in fields like marketing, information technology, and finance. Every young teacher I know shares an apartment and drives an economy car. Our salaries show that we are not valued by society. We're often treated with disrespect by administrators and veteran teachers who sneer at the fact that many young teachers leave the profession of teaching within a few years, as though we're not tough enough or good enough to prevail. I know I will make it through my first year of teaching, but will I continue to teach for five, ten, and twenty years? What is the answer to the problem of how to keep talented new teachers in the profession?
There is one overarching rule in my classroom (or shall I say, in my three classrooms). It's respect; respect for self and others. This should be the rule beyond just my classroom or my school. When new teachers are respected, and that is shown through competitive salaries and decent working conditions for students and teachers, adequate materials and good mentoring, we will come to this profession, and we will stay. For me, teaching high school English is the most challenging, rewarding work I have ever done; I think it is the most rewarding, important, and meaningful work I will ever do. Whether it is the only work I will ever do- today, it's "absolutely". Ask me again tomorrow.
Those who educate children well are more to be honored than even their parents, for these only give them life, those the art of living well. - Aristotle.
Doubtless, Jaime Escalante, as portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the film Stand and Deliver, is a consummate instructor. He tells his students that mathematics is a universal language, useful everywhere. Can a motivational movie featuring math be effective in an English or even a Business Writing classroom? Yes-definitely! Among other languages, English, like math, is employed all over the world. The teaching techniques Mr. Escalante uses in the film can be applied or eschewed in any classroom regardless of the specific discipline.
The Hollywood writers of Stand and Deliver, I believe, expect the viewers to see Mr. Escalante as an excellent instructor, but the more times I see the film the more flaws I see in the paradigm, especially considering what the teacher must do and not do today. Jaime Escalante, in Stand and Deliver, brings a dangerous weapon to class (a meat cleaver when he is cutting the apples to illustrate fractions) endangers the life of one of his students (he and Pancho almost have an auto accident when he is showing the student that he needs to know the road ahead when making important "turns" in life), and he could be accused of sexual harassment when he embraces Claudia in the hallway. He doesn't seem to care about getting along with his colleagues. He feuds with his chairperson, is cavalier with his principal and threatens to beat up one of the investigators (played by Andy Garcia in the film) sent by the Educational Testing Service. He doesn't hesitate to bully and insult his students and seems to have free reign to kick them out of his classroom permanently when they are not cooperative.
We may admire Mr. Escalante's boldness as an instructor and his defiance of political correctness, but there are more disturbing considerations: Jaime Escalante becomes such a dedicated teacher that he seems to sacrifice his personal life, and he seriously endangers his physical health. He teaches during the summer and holidays, instructs Adult School in the evenings, and promotes his program in the junior high schools during his free time. His wife accuses him of spending all of his time at school, leaving none to help his own sons at home with their difficult math assignments. In one scene Mr. Olmos portrays Jaime Escalante having a "minor" heart attack. (If this is a "minor" attack, I'd hate to see or experience one that is major!) Clearly, Jaime Escalante does more than is expected of him as an instructor, but we should steer clear of his excesses.
The teaching profession is a rewarding one and is getting better. I have been instructing for over 30 years, and I can see the benefits of what I do now more clearly than ever before. There is a genuine need for instructors not only in California, but nationwide. The California community and the political structure are concerned about educational quality and plan positive change. We should welcome most of these changes because they will benefit us personally. And, most importantly, we can do a great deal ourselves as teachers to make our jobs pleasant. I am confident that the educational atmosphere, pay, and benefits will continue to improve over time. Our job is to fill the vacancies in the teaching profession, remain teaching, and realize the long-range enrichment this occupation offers.
I am looking forward to spending ten more years teaching. This will be forty years in all if I meet my goal. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do. Nothing else could be as fun or productive. However, I definitely recommend replacing the "self-sacrificing" prototype of the English teacher with the instructor who is self-fulfilled. I offer the following suggestions to make teaching more fun and to add to your longevity in this profession:
1. Keep working on your creative capacities. Learn to draw, paint, or play a musical instrument. Bring your creative products or efforts to the classroom to share with your students. Encourage your students to do likewise. Do not be afraid to bring in your or their beginning efforts, even the failures. This way you can introduce them to the creative process. They, I find, are amazingly encouraging and complimentary, especially when they see your and their classmates' human side. Really, like them, you are more a student of life than an instructor. If you tap your creative potential and that of your students you will seldom be overcome with frustration, anxiety, depression or student rebellion.
2. Stay active in your field. Learn about publishing and publish your own work. Write about your interests and concerns, and seek out the appropriate journals. Write poems, short stories, even novels. Write your life story and publish it, even at your own expense if necessary. Share your efforts with your students, and encourage them to do the same. I assure you, once you get going you will have the time of your life. Remember that the most important steps in publication are actually picking a topic and sitting down to write about it. Do not let the imagined "obstacles" to publishing keep you from setting down your thoughts. Read what authors say about writing. I recommend James A. Michener's Novel and his autobiography The World Is My Home: A Memoir. Self-Consciousness by John Updike is also very helpful. One of my favorites is Women Writers of the West Coast, edited by Marilyn Yalom. Attend as many conferences as you can, especially the ones dealing with writing, publishing and the ones featuring successful authors who share their experiences with the audience. These authors will help you break into the field. I highly recommend the CATE conferences, of course, and the annual Literary Women's conference in Long Beach, CA. I have attended the latter conference on three occasions and was the only man in the audience! I felt very welcome and learned a great deal about writing.
3. Read. Read. Read. Plug up the holes in your literary preparation. Read the books you missed in high school and in college. Read everything you can by and about your favorite author or authors. If you travel a great deal in your car, listen to Books on Tape. Your local library carries many selections. Read aloud to your students, and ask them to take turns reading aloud themselves. It is amazing how much literature you can cover just reading with your class 15-20 minutes per day. You do not always have to be overprepared. Do not hesitate to read a book to your students that you haven't read yourself before. Go to the school library and check out a class set. Learn with your students, and this will help you remember what it is like to approach an unfamiliar novel for the first time in a classroom setting. I introduced Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country in this impromptu manner. This exceedingly rich and instructive novel is now one of my favorites. Douwe Stuurman, a professor I had at UCSB, used to tell his students to "live vulnerably." I'll never forget this lesson; it's the best way to approach new experiences and combat ''the boring routine."
4. Travel as often as you can. Visit the literary sanctuaries in your own country and abroad like Salinas, California, Hannibal, Missouri, Cooperstown, New York, the Lake District in England and the literarily rich cities of London and Paris. Learn about the authors of Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Russia, Mexico, Central and South America, Australia, Canada, etc., and visit their locales. This will take you a lifetime. You will always have a trip to look forward to. Take pictures, collect souvenirs, and share them with your students. You can expect a warm reception. Encourage your students to travel. If you are very independent and have the means, it is best to travel on your own. However, I find it convenient and economical (at least the first time in a foreign country) to take a tour. You will meet many interesting people and attain lifelong friends. I recommend Globus and Grand Circle Travel.
5. Expand your view of English, communications and literature. Remember that the written word is the basis of much of what we do. Art, music, science and history all depend on written commentary. Hang posters of artistic masterpieces in your classroom, and introduce your students to literature about the great artists. Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy and Lust for Life are examples. Stone's The Greek Treasure is about the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who excavated the cities of Troy and Mycenae. This historical novel would help introduce the epics of Homer and Greek drama. Ask your colleagues in the Science, Math and History departments to recommend their favorite books to you. Once you have read them, do not hesitate to discuss what you have learned with your students. Some interesting books I have read recently are Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and The Red Queen (a book about the evolution of human nature) by Matt Ridley. Asking your students to recommend their favorite books can also yield rich results. Students recommended these literary gems to me: Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
6. Show films based on literature to your students, and discuss how and why movie producers change the original plots of novels, plays and stories to accommodate the modern viewing audience. You can cover a great deal of literature in this manner and provide rich historical and biographical background. I recommend that you consult the catalogues published by the Teacher's Video Company and the Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Movies and Videos.
7. Dedicate one day each week to oral reports. The students can work in pairs and present a controversial issue, literary topic, hobby, special interest, interesting occupation or pastime to their classmates. I find that restricting the students exclusively to literary issues tends to squelch their creativity and spontaneity. I ask them to present a topic that is especially interesting to them. Is there an issue they know more about than most other people? Do they know someone who has a special creative ability or interesting occupation? Would this person be willing to visit the class and make a presentation or participate in a discussion? Most English programs promote vocational awareness. Students who bring in guest speakers receive automatic "As." I have never been disappointed with a guest speaker's performance. Parents, friends, the school's staff members, speakers from the business world, exchange students, and recruiters from the Armed Forces are willing to visit your classroom. The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) of Los Angeles offers an excellent program featuring fashion throughout the ages as seen in films based on literature.
The oral reports consist of an educational portion that presents the issue, topic, occupation, etc. to the other students, and an oral discussion portion for an open class discussion including questions and answers. You will discover that everyone will look forward to the weekly oral report. You will be surprised how much you learn about your students and their access to the community from these reports. The students learn to be resourceful and present themselves comfortably before an audience, essential attributes of effective oral communication.
8. If you have a Peer Assistance program in your school, please take advantage of it. Ontario High School in Ontario, CA has developed an outstanding program primarily for new teachers with the assistance of the Teachers Association. Consulting Teachers serve a two-year term. Sandra Richards serves currently. Help extends not just to new teachers but also to anyone who has questions or needs assistance. In addition to the Peer Assistance program, Joni Conger, Kay Williams-Pierce, Bill Cousins and Hugh Johnson work tirelessly to assist new teachers.
9. Avoid two of Jaime Escalante's pitfalls. Mind your health carefully, and spend as much time as you can with your family. Exercise regularly; participate in a sport like golf, tennis, skiing (water or snow), surfing, etc. Do not let your job encroach on this time. Avoid too much fat, sugar and cholesterol in your diet. Take hour-long walks every other day. When you travel go with your loved ones and family. Visit their favorite shrines and places of interest too. When you attend a school function take a significant other or a family member with you. Read aloud to your family members, and let them read to you. Involve them in your creative activities and professional functions. Encourage them to do likewise. Put much thought into how to cut down the time grading papers. Take as little work home as possible. Use your planning period and the time you show films in class to grade your papers. Be selective in your grading: Sometimes you can mark the students' essay introductions or conclusions or second body paragraphs exclusively. One teacher I know marks papers until he encounters five major errors and then stops. Ask your colleagues how they save time on paper grading. Remember that "quality time" and quantity of time are pretty much the same when it comes to your loved ones. Do not shortchange them in either category.
I am dedicated to two notions in particular; one of them is a dream. Do not let others restrict your vision of language and literature. Our field is a broad one, taking in virtually everything. Writing Across the Curriculum is an excellent concept. And, if all of us, regardless of our positions on the educational hierarchy, worked to make teaching a joy for teachers, the joy would naturally pass on to our students. This dream may take some time to reach fulfillment. But in the meantime, it is up to us, the individuals in the classrooms, to have fun teaching, develop ourselves as individuals, and pass on our knowledge and happiness to our students. We must teach them and practice the art of living well. The love of learning and experiencing life fully is the key to motivation in English and in all other disciplines.
A Modest Suggestion to Improve the Educational System of California Whereby the System Is Streamlined and Aided in its Mission to Improve the Test Scores of the Students of California
It is a melancholy prospect to those who contemplate the future of California education when they realize how quickly young teachers depart the profession, leaving behind too many old, burnt out, useless hulks to flounder in the waves of change. How often these contemplations lead to malaise and depression, so inconsistent and inappropriate for the sunny disposition of the world's sixth largest economy. Too often the objects of these contemplations flee education to write software programs for dot.com companies, to sell real estate, or to pretend to teach literature in Texas.
All parties agree that if an efficient and equitable plan were deployed to make these youthful, energetic education enthusiasts healthy and useful members of the profession the creator of such a scheme might deserve a statue or plaque in Sacramento as a preserver of the education system.
Having conjured the problem for whole minutes at a time I am convinced that the solution to our problem of keeping young teachers in the profession has frequently failed in the past because previous plans have depended on the expenditure of money. A plan that saves money while utilizing young teachers efficiently would surely be a boon to administrators, parents, governing boards, business roundtables, taxpayers, and others concerned with the efficient maintenance of the system.
Previous projectors have frequently neglected to account for the malleability, adaptability, resourcefulness, and naivet' of today's new teachers. I am convinced that under my plan contemporary California English teachers will not only enhance the learning of California's students, but they will provide a numeric standard against which all other programs can be compared, provided API bands are similar.
A probate lawyer friend of mine says that modern young women are especially gifted multi-taskers, capable of accomplishing a number of standard operations without exceptional mental reflection or loss of motion. These young, female multi-tasking-types could be employed after two years of intensive training to manage classrooms and to drill students in the subtleties of multiple choice tests. I am told by a highly regarded instructor at the Department of Motor Vehicles that the most efficient teaching design must include monetary rewards and punishments for students and teachers; that students must drill their skills repeatedly; that the most efficient way to teach skills is a student-teacher ratio of 300 to 1.
Ideally, a talented, well-trained twenty-year-old woman could coach, advise, counsel, arbitrate, administer, drill 300 students, and perform other duties as assigned by her district contract. Portable buildings all over California clamor to house these students, to say nothing of the empty cargo containers recently employed by smugglers.
A very worthy and reputable school board member, who left English teaching some years ago, noted that the current paucity of new teachers is probably accountable in part to the abysmal pay. She said further that a lack of respect or esteem for the profession may also contribute. But I am assured by a mechanic friend that more young people would be willing to become English teachers if the requirements of a Bachelor's degree in English and a credential were scrapped. Certainly under the current system of accountability intellectual rigor and scholastic achievement are handicaps in preparing California's students for the SAT9 and the High School Exit Exam. California could streamline the process that engages new teachers by hiring well-trained twenty-year-olds to drill the basics in grammar, punctuation, and paragraph sequences. By encouraging these young people to become teachers sooner we allow them to make money sooner and guarantee a fresh crop is consistently available to drill basic skills right out of community college.
Younger people, because they are not married and have no dependents, could live in portable barracks rented or leased by school districts. The living arrangements would be further inducement to build loyalty between faculty members and school districts. Some highly competitive school districts might be willing to create district stores that establish credit and lending privileges to employees. That the old bugaboo that equates test scores with district wealth could be easily scotched. These kinds of financial matters are outside by area of expertise and I digress.
Supposing that 10,000 new teachers are hired in California annually and nearly that number retire at the same time. I have it on the best personnel office authority that the new teacher costs only one-fifth of an older teacher in salary in benefits. Under current budgets Californians could hire five times as many new, energetic teachers assuming the state can get rid of the overly experienced dead wood soon. The current teacher shortage could be eliminated in a trice and California's standardized test scores would merely skyrocket.
The advantages of hiring highly trained twenty-year-olds for three or four-year stints can be quickly enumerated to a cynical teaching establishment. My plan is cheaper. It will achieve an efficient use of space thereby reducing the need for more schools in California. My plan will enhance the value of younger teachers thereby raising the self-esteem of younger teachers while attracting fresh faces. My plan is low maintenance and easily adaptable for all school district. My plan is a logical and consistent continuation of standards previously established but left incomplete by the education lobby. My plan will raise test scores. My plan would ease an endemic housing crunch and give community colleges a new reason for existing. Certainly there are other advantages, but time, space, and modesty forbid elaboration.
There are those of a desponding spirit who will cavil, criticize, or complain that I have not considered the feeling or aspirations of veteran teachers. I can only respond that experienced teachers are everyday leaving the profession because they were not properly utilized by our educational leaders. These feckless and ungrateful departees simply provide more space for more youthful and energetic teachers at less cost, encouraging a speedier remedy.
I can think of no objection that can be raised against my proposal, unless it is urged that we may be asking too much too soon of too few. I will grant that a revolution in thinking about what we ask teachers to do risks a number of disquieting moments concerning the real meaning of learning in California or the effect of class size or the purpose of education. Such light and trivial concerns are only the vexatious natterings of the nabobs of negativity. A friend of mine, a refugee from the wilds of Arizona by way of Washington, DC, tells me that the testing mania has infected vast hordes of policy makers across the land. I am not so violently bent on my own plan that I would reject any other proposal that is as efficient, cheap, and easy as mine. But as things stand, if test scores determine a child's learning in the future, Californians must implement a strategy to raise test scores as quickly as possible. My plan will raise scores quickly.
I profess, in all sincerity, that I want only what is best for the great state of California; I hold no shares in testing companies, National University, the Accu-scan company, nor Sealand cargo containers. As a taxpayer in this wonderful land, I believe we can gain a portion of accountability through this streamlined approach to learning in California and urge immediate consideration of this alternative.
On the surface this is a wonderful idea. The first year of teaching is enormously challenging whatever your preparation has been, and, without support, many talented new teachers simply throw up their hands and walk away. 30% quit within the first 5 years. As for warranty, I just don't think novice teachers have much in common with household appliances. And a guarantee from a university that is busy training next year's 700 candidates seems improbable. Such a program garners headlines but is unlikely to solve real problems.
The place to support new teachers is in the schools. Moreover the people who need to be providing that support are the novice's new colleagues. I remember when I began teaching at Lincoln Junior High School in 1973. I was hired to fill an unexpected vacancy after only a few weeks of student teaching. I didn't know much, but Principal Howard Steinman could tell I was willing to learn. He could also count on the fact that the master teachers on his staff would take me under their wing.
No formal mentor program existed in those days, but Frances Dunning, John Freisinger, Mary Knowlton, Vivian Spurgin, John Obusek, John Scherer, and many others wait to be told that there was a new teacher on the faculty who needed help. They simply materialized at my elbow. They taught me less about the next day's lesson than about how to think as a teacher.
I watched Mrs. Knowlton send a student back to rewrite what she was about to turn in. Misspellings were not allowed, not even in a science class. I was still resorting to increased volume when my students were out of order until I watched Mrs. Spurgin manage a choir of 100 12-year-olds with a wink and a nod or the occasional well-placed finger. Mr. Freisinger, of course, was my resource for the details of grammar, a detail of English that had escaped me in my own sixties education. I learned quickly.
A guarantee that would be meaningful to new teachers should come from their more experienced colleagues. It might look something like this: "We, your new peers, promise to keep our doors open, to listen, to withhold judgement, to offer our best advice, never to say 'I told you so' when you ignore it. We promise to invite you to our after-school gatherings and to introduce you with gusto when you arrive. We promise to help you circumnavigate the campus and also such rules as must be circumvented. And on those days when an errant child has caused you to forget, we promise to remind you why you became a teacher in the first place. We solemnly swear to be there when you need us."
In this spirit, CATE would like to dedicate the April issue of California English to new teachers. We are here for you.